Rather than manipulate our established fears by way of the threat to personal security, this show asks us to examine what makes us individuals in the first place.
Missing persons investigator-for-hire (Jeremy Sisto) is named Knapp. I hate this, and so will anyone smart enough to enjoy a show laced with existential dilemmas and complicated characters.
But even if we resent Kidnapped's hackneyed set-up, we can appreciate its twists of character and philosophy. The hackneyed part goes like this: just as he's about to retire, FBI Agent Latimer King (Delroy Lindo) learns that the high profile Cain family's teenaged son Leopold (Will Denton) has been kidnapped. He decides he has to work just one last case. Super-rich Conrad (Timothy Hutton) and wife Ellie (Dana Delaney) head a literally picture-perfect family. The episode begins as a photographer from the Times arrives to snap shots for a "Breakfast with the Cains" feature. Mommy and Daddy smile alongside Leopold and his little sister Alice (Lydia Jordan), positioned just-so beside elaborate fruit bowls and a sweet West Side view of Central Park.
The Cains seem rich and happy enough, but the foppish Leopold is a little too fragile and affected: he speaks French, listens to Good Charlotte, and first appears floating in still water, eyes closed and arms outstretched. And unlike his two sisters, he already has a fulltime body guard, Virgil (Mykelti Williamson).
Virgil is swift to sense predators endangering his precious white cargo, but the Cains treat him more like a servant than a highly skilled professional. On his arrival at the house, Alice chides him, “You’re 28 seconds late,” and it’s all too unclear if she’s joking. At the same time, he can tell a tea rose from a hydrangea; clearly, he's too sharp to be putting up with such nonsense.
But he's about to get a nasty wake-up. When Leopold is snatched in midtown Manhattan on Virgil's watch, the blood splatters and the music quickens. The snipers on the scene reveal it's a highly orchestrated affair, shot from various angles, with fast cuts and overexposed lighting. Once Leo is gone, the show cuts to commercial, then returns to start again in earnest. The ransom note instructs, “Don’t Call the Police.” Seeing as the Cains struggle maintaining their day-to-day activities (their Latina housekeeper must intervene when Conrad accidentally makes his daughter a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich), they're at a loss as to what to do in this crisis.
Enter Knapp. Bearded and shifty, he's unaffiliated and ready to help, for a price. He seems worth it: his only goal is to bring back the missing person "intact," unlike the Bureau, who also want to prosecute Leopold's captors, perhaps jeopardizing his safety. Given his profession (and again, his name), Knapp's detachment seems like a persona. As Knapp coldly lays out his terms of service, Ellie observes that he's "not very good with people." He delivers the canned answer: "No, but I'm good at finding them."
To make sure we know how good, the episode flashes back to Knapp engineering a vigilante-style rescue of a similarly kidnapped girl from a secluded farm house. He doesn't utter a one-liner or gratuitously shoot villains; he just does his business and gets the hell out, returning the girl safe and sound to her thankful and wealthy parents.
While this backstory seems unexceptional, it also begins to reveal some of Kidnapped's thematic layers. As much as Knapp ostensibly symbolizes the dueling state interests (the good of the citizen versus the good of the collective), he also symbolizes dueling individual interests (his service versus his "non-negotiable fee"). Soon enough, he and King are pitted against one another, each refusing to assist the other, though their goals are seemingly the same.
As we sense Knapp's awareness of his own brand of anti-heroic hypocrisy, we get a look at the chief difference between Kidnapped and those other crime/cop/nabber shows. Rather than manipulate our established fears by way of the threat to personal security, this show asks us to examine what makes us individuals in the first place, suggesting that our sense of identity can easily be taken from us -- by external forces or our own choices (informed as these may be by other forces).
Knapp appears sanguine with this condition. His proficiency as a "finder" isn't explained in supernatural terms; neither does he have any superb professional intuition. Instead, he listens, contemplates, and ask Socratic sorts of questions, a change from the tech-heavy crime-solving currently saturating primetime. When Knapp encounters a dense Buddhist epistemology text in Leopold's bedroom, his associate Turner (Carmen Ejogo) asks him, in jest, if he's read that one. His serious response, "Not that translation," emphasizes the show's other themes of subjectivity and interpretation.
I suspect the show is in control of its complexities, as it's littered with references to obscure theories and dense texts (Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness and the Bi-Cameral Mind for starters), including Ellie's highly philosophical monologue that closes the first episode, questioning her significance in a world so busy and so large. Such interest in metaphysics and self-reference suggests Kidnapped will pursue some kind of enlightenment along with the return of its missing person.